The Working Families Party and Cuomo

Before writing off the Working Families Party’s Cuomo endorsement as yet another capitulation, consider the concessions wrung out of him.

Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

On Saturday, the New York Working Families Party’s state committee voted 58.6% to 41.4% to put Andrew Cuomo on its ballot line for the November election for governor, capping off a week of intense speculation, negotiation, and deal-making. As recently as Friday morning, WFP co-chair and Citizen Action executive director Karen Scharff had said that she thought a deal to secure Cuomo the nomination was extremely unlikely.

Many on the Left are expressing their understandable revulsion at the outcome. But before this goes down as yet another capitulation to austerity, Albany back room dealings, and Democratic Party hegemony, the scale of what just happened needs to be appreciated.

First, the timing of events matters. Until April 22, hardly anyone was paying attention to the WFP’s decision. Then, a Siena poll (highly respected in New York politics) showed an unnamed WFP challenger to Cuomo’s left snatching 24% of the vote and shrinking his margin over his Republican challenger from thirty points to fifteen. Suddenly, the party’s decision was a matter of real concern to the governor and his strategists.

Leaders of the WFP were deliberately coy in responding to the poll and did not try to hide the fact that there was massive discontent within the party’s ranks over Cuomo’s austerity budgets, his humiliation of Bill de Blasio around charter schools, and his failure to take meaningful steps towards passing campaign finance reform. The story that the WFP might actually run its own candidate gathered steam. A high-stakes game of chicken had begun.

Cuomo began by putting the screws to labor leaders, who wield significant power within the WFP and are its major source of funding. Those leaders then pushed internally and publicly for the WFP to go with Cuomo, with the implication — increasingly explicit over the course of these weeks — that those unions would pull their support from the party if it didn’t fall in line.

But others within the WFP stood their ground, in large part because state law requires that minor parties’ gubernatorial nominations be made by their state committees, which are made up of two delegates from each assembly district, although one third of the roughly 300 seats are vacant. (Most endorsements are made by the Party’s executive committee, which is dominated by big unions.)

Meanwhile, the WFP said publicly that the only issue that could lead the party to back down from a challenge would be passage of a New York City-style system of public financing for all state elections, which the party believes could lead to New York State’s elected leadership looking like New York City’s.

Cuomo had paid only lip service to this issue up until this point. He now began to take it seriously. But the governor was late to the table and there was no obvious way to get a deal through the Republican-controlled state senate, as Republican senators in super-majority Democratic New York State would be the group of incumbents most disadvantaged by public financing.

On May 21, a new poll, this one from Quinnipiac, showed numbers nearly identical to the Siena poll a month before (head-to-head Cuomo leads Astorino 57%-28%; with a WFP challenger the lead shrinks to 37-24, with 22 for the unnamed WFP candidate). A close election with a sizable vote to Cuomo’s left would damage his brand just as he is trying to burnish it for a possible presidential run.

Then, in an unexpected twist. Bill de Blasio decided to rally to the governor’s cause and lobby publicly and privately for the WFP to support him. De Blasio has been a friend and ally of the WFP’s since its founding; the party’s former elections director (herself a former ACORN and 1199 organizer) managed de Blasio’s come-from-behind victory in the public advocate race in 2009 and is now the most trusted and powerful of his aides.

Earlier in the year Gov. Cuomo dealt de Blasio two serious blows: first by refusing to push for a tax increase on high income earners to fund the mayor’s signature plan for universal pre-kindergarten education, then by publicly appearing at a rally with charter school zealot Eva Moskowitz staged to back de Blasio down from his modest checks on charter school growth. Playing the bigger man — and the canny strategist — de Blasio’s entrance into the negotiations made a deal more likely.

But before anyone could write a postmortem, on Thursday, two days before the nominating convention, Fordham Law School professor and Howard Dean campaign veteran Zephyr Teachout announced that she would run as a “Working Families Democrat” and would seek the WFP’s nomination. A WFP co-chair went on the record with the New York Times saying that Teachout was likely to get it. Cuomo was signaled for the final time that the party was prepared to risk the consequences and go its own way.

It seems that Cuomo got the message. On Friday night, reports began to surface that a deal had been brokered.

Not only would there be a commitment from Cuomo to pass public financing, but now there was also talk of support for decriminalization of marijuana, access to financial aid for undocumented college students, a $10.10 state minimum wage indexed to inflation with a provision allowing municipalities to raise their own minimum wages up to 30% above the state’s (Cuomo had publicly opposed both of these measures earlier this year), increased funding for public schools, and a Women’s Equality Act.

The crucial bit (sadly, an insider story that is unlikely to resonate beyond a small fraction of extremely high-information voters) is Cuomo committing to support a Democratic takeover of the New York State Senate. For most of the twentieth century, New York State had a Democratic assembly and a Republican senate, and both sides preferred to keep it that way, such that at every redistricting, the lines were drawn to ensure that changes in the electorate did not result in changes in their elected representation.

By the 2000s, when Democrats held a 5-3 registration advantage over Republicans statewide, this had become a shameful exercise. A coalition of state senate Democrats and the Working Families Party set about defeating vulnerable Republican senators in 2004, and by 2008 had won a Democratic majority. More than once since then, several opportunistic Democrats have defected to the Republican side, and in 2012 a chamber with majority Democratic members voted for a Long Island Republican for majority leader. A coalition of Republicans and “independent” Democrats have run the Senate since, and have resisted reforms of every sort.

Andrew Cuomo has been fine with this arrangement. It’s a convenient scapegoat for whatever progressive measures he would rather not pass. Reports indicate that getting a public commitment from him to support a Democrat/WFP takeover of the Senate senate was the hardest pledge to wring from him. But that is what he did Saturday in a video message to the WFP’s state committee followed by a call over speakerphone.

An intense floor fight apparently transpired. At issue was whether anyone had any business trusting Cuomo. Many longtime WFP stalwarts, including former party co-chair and former ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis, were adamant that the Party party should support back Teachout. The vote was contested, but Cuomo prevailed.

How to evaluate the result? First, it must be clear: The measures Cuomo committed to are big. They will make people’s lives better, they are victories that the Left can point to, and they have the possibility to transform the political system.

Aside from public financing, measures like the $13 minimum wage were not even in discussion before Friday. Whether the WFP added them as conditions, Cuomo’s team offered them because they could not deliver public financing before the May 31 decision, or de Blasio brought them into the mix so as to ensure that a deal with the WFP also won him commitments from Cuomo for the mayor’s priorities for New York City is unknown beyond New York’s innermost political circles. But the sheer magnitude of the pledges is a measure of Cuomo’s fear of a WFP challenge.

Cuomo’s commitments furthermore represent a complete reversal from four years ago. Then, the WFP was facing a federal investigation that threatened to bankrupt it. Many in the party wished to nominate their own candidate against Cuomo, but he wielded credible threats to break the party if it did.

In 2010, Cuomo considered it a favor to allow the WFP to have him as the party’s nominee, and he extracted his pound of flesh (public support for his platform, including austerity measures) in return. Four years later, the most powerful politician in New York had to commit to the WFP’s program, including planks that he himself had until recently vocally opposed, in order to stave off a challenge from his left.

The process matters, too. The decision was made by the WFP’s state committee in a properly democratic roll-call vote. The significance of this can easily be missed. Two hundred activists just forced enormous capitulations from a man who wants to be president. I can’t point to a comparable moment in my lifetime

The clear implication is that the stronger that group is, and the bigger a base it represents, the more leverage the party wields — which means that the Left wields more power, too. There is room inside the party for more voices from the Left, especially younger ones. And there is little doubt that the decisions the party makes matter.

Not everyone is pleased, of course. For many on the Left, a Cuomo endorsement is simply beyond the pale. Those who already viewed the WFP as a hopelessly compromised organization will no doubt find that position reinforced.

There are some legitimate points on this side. As I wrote last week, a challenger in this race would have allowed many voters to develop a much stronger identification with the party, and would have put it in a position to build a bigger and denser rank and file. The disaffected Democrats who are rallying behind Elizabeth Warren would very likely have found in Zephyr Teachout someone who articulated their view of the world.

Meanwhile, many loyal WFP voters will find that a vote for Cuomo on whichever line is a pill they can’t swallow. The “threat of exit”that is the source of the party’s leverage might be weakened by their refusal to use it against Cuomo. On these grounds, the committee’s decision was a missed opportunity.

Perhaps a more persuasive point is that it is not clear that a Cuomo endorsement was necessary to win the things that Cuomo just committed to. But here a crucial corrective is required, which exposes the genuine dilemma that the WFP faced in this moment. Many reports have been utterly mistaken in saying that the risk facing the WFP was that it would not get the necessary 50,000 (roughly 1.25% of typical gubernatorial turnout) votes for its candidate in November in order to retain access to the ballot. The only time the WFP came close to missing that threshold was the first time it tried, in 1998, when it got 52,000. Since then it has cleared the hurdle comfortably.

It is extraordinarily unlikely that Teachout would have received the 22% the polls were showing, but it seems next to impossible that she would have received less than 150,000 votes, given the low risk of spoiling and the support from large groups like for a WFP candidate.

So the risk was never that the WFP would lose its spot on the ballot — the risk was that it would hemorrhage union support, which means union dollars, access to union members, and union weight being thrown behind WFP priorities. And the more seriously that Cuomo negotiated, particularly alongside de Blasio, the more justified union leaders would have felt in cutting ties with the party if it went with Teachout.

A Teachout candidacy into the fall would have been the Party’s top priority, and with presumably less funds to spread around, the party would likely have had to leave the state senate to its own devices. Cuomo would still be governor, Republicans would still control the senate, the WFP’s coalition would be smaller, and the possibility of moving legislation of the sort that Cuomo just committed to would be dimmer.

Furthermore, WFP leaders had to seriously weigh the implications of passing up a pledge that would increase the minimum wage by almost fifty percent. One party activist who is a leader in the fast food struggle stressed that community organizations within the party like Make the Road NY, New York Communities for Change, and Citizen Action thought a good deal was worth taking — if it was a really good deal.

“Community groups were at the front lines pushing back and saying that we as the party will not sit idly by… We as a party will use the tools that the party is built on to force the governor to his knees, and force him to understand that he needs to push issues that matter to working people and people of color.” The delegates hailing from those organizations who voted for Cuomo over Teachout did so believing that it was the best decision for the communities they represent.

The most powerful force within the WFP, however, are large unions, and for the most part these were unequivocal in their support for a Cuomo endorsement from the beginning. Indeed, a good deal of the trade union leadership that is in the party seems to oppose the use of the party’s outside option almost on principle.

It is telling that only a union president, 1199 chief George Gresham, tried to scare the delegates with the specter of an unsought Republican victory in November. Given their weight within the party, and the risks the party courted if it broke with them, it’s not altogether surprising that they achieved the outcome they had sought all along.

New York unionists who feel that the WFP sold out on Saturday should direct some of their anger at their union’s leaderships. And they should fight inside their unions for a more visionary approach to politics, right alongside fighting for a more militant approach to employers.

Bill de Blasio has to figure in any judgment as well. I strongly suspect that only he could have brokered this deal. Any other emissary of the governor’s would have lacked the credibility with the party’s activists to sway their votes. It is hard to think who else could have even put negotiations like these in motion.

Indeed, it may be that de Blasio is the real winner of this episode. The mayor turned the tables on the governor, who now owes him in a big way. He will count a $13 minimum wage as a huge victory for his administration. And he will be able to claim credit for a Democratic takeover of the state senate, which could easily propel him over Cuomo as the most powerful Democrat in New York.

Which is a good thing — better him than Cuomo. But if the goal is ultimately to be less dependent on powerful politicians, and instead rely on a mobilized base, then there are clearly disadvantages for the WFP and the Left in such a situation.

The WFP has always felt that the real action was in legislatures, and has overwhelmingly devoted its energies to those bodies. Saturday’s decision keeps the party fighting on its preferred turf. It is a strategy that has delivered many wins for working people up until now, and there is no reason to think it won’t work again. But with disgust at Cuomo and the political system boiling over — disgust that Teachout eloquently captured — the WFP no doubt stood to gain considerably from adopting the mantle of the insurgent.

There will be a challenger to Cuomo’s left on the ballot in November, Green Party candidate and Teamster Howie Hawkins. No doubt he will get the 50,000 votes needed to keep the Green Party on the ballot, and he may get many more. But the Green Party is a tiny organization, with no ties to institutions, limited resources, and no track record of legislative or electoral successes. It perennially runs candidates for statewide office, and they rarely leave a trace. Maybe Hawkins’s message will strike a chord with disaffected voters, but he’ll be playing it on a very quiet instrument.

The difficult thing for WFP supporters in this moment is that the WFP’s mouthpiece has grown extremely loud. Outrage with the rule of the one percent and the political system that enables it continues to grow. It will need to be channeled if it is going to weaken the fortifications that the political system has erected around itself. The very fact that this deal was negotiated indicates that they can be breached by smart and well-organized forces.

Whether the breach becomes a breakthrough will depend on whether any of Cuomo’s commitments — perhaps especially the commitment to public financing, which is the only one that affects the political system itself — actually materialize. This in turn depends on the collective determination of everyone who is fighting for progress on these issues. It is not a foregone conclusion. But the wins are within reach, and it would be obtuse to deny the importance of the power that the WFP has built to putting them in play.

We should not doubt that better wages for the lowest paid workers, expanded access to public education for those previously denied it, and real election reform are partial but significant victories in a struggle of classes. Absent an organized extra-parliamentary political movement capable of articulating a more radical set of demands, party-political negotiations like the one that played out over the last month will continue to be perhaps the greatest point of leverage for American workers.

We should applaud the victories we have won, use them to build more power, and go bigger the next time around.